I recall Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs was on the radio a lot when I was growing up. I borrow the concept sometimes and say to my clients that if I could only take one exercise to a desert island, it would be the deadlift.
There is huge variety in the exercises that can be performed with weight training, and numerous benefits. So there are plenty of other good candidates for desert island exercise but, to me, the deadlift is supreme because of its whole-body stimulation of the nervous and muscular systems. After all, if you could only have one exercise, you’d choose the one with maximum muscle stimulation.
I also like the fact that it’s a good marker and developer of brute strength. You’re lifting a dead weight without the benefit of momentum, a stretch reflex or a bounce. It’s just brute force.
It takes dedication and consistency over a long period of time to get your weights up on any lift, but particularly the deadlift. If you don’t get your form right you’re either going to damage yourself or make it harder than it needs to be. Either way, your progress will falter.
Below is my guide to successful deadlifting.
Before you begin a programme designed to progress your deadlift, be sure to have the right kit. I find the following essential
- Lifting straps. Don’t let your grip be the limiting factor that cuts your set short. Use straps.
- Flat shoes. I’m wearing a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor’s in this picture. You can get special deadlifting shoes or, if your gym allows it, you can go bare foot. Why do we need flat shoes? Well we want to be as close to the ground as possible and we don’t want a thick rubber sole introducing a wobbly instability as we lift.
- Shin guards. I’m wearing a pair of football shin pads but you can get specially designed shin guards. Without these you will take the skin off your shins and bleed all over the lifting platform.
- The address.
Before you lift the weight off the floor you need to adopt the right position. That position should be safe, enable optimal leverage and be tight. Here are the main points
- Shins touching the bar
- Shoulders over the bar
- Get quite low, you’re going to be driving with your quads during the first pull
- Keep a flat back with neutral spine
- Keep your shoulder blades down and retracted. This will help you adopt a safe position and stiffen your spine against the weight to come
- Without lifting, pull against the bar to help you to keep your chest high and bum down
- Feel the weight towards your heels, stiffen the spine, brace the core.
- You’re ready to lift.
- The first pull.
The first half of the movement isn’t really a pull at all, it’s more of a push. You should be driving hard with your quads, trying to push your heels through the floor. That will get the bar moving.
You’re not going to be able to change the angle of your torso in the first half because your shins are in the way. That why it’s not really a pull. Your glutes and hamstrings aren’t yet fully engaged to pull you upright, they’re maintaining the angle of your torso. Your quads are the driving force.
It’s important to keep your torso as close to the starting angle as possible during the first pull and not to let it creep down towards horizontal. That would just make it more difficult and put extra strain on your lower back. To keep your torso in the right position, keep your weight towards your heels and keep the bar as close to you as possible, dragging it up your shins if necessary. If you let the bar creep away from your shins then the weight will pull your torso over and put you at risk of injury. Wear the shins guards and drag it up your shins
- The second pull
Once you get past the knees, then you can pull hard. Here your glutes and hamstrings take over to pull your torso upright. This should feel easier than the first half of the lift. Glutes and hams are a powerful combination and now that you are past the knee and moving towards the vertical, the force on your spine is reducing and the lift starts to feel safer.
Finish standing upright. There’s no need for an exaggerated military style chest high finish. And there’s certainly no need for an excessive lean backwards to counteract the weight. In fact, doing that is more likely to strain your lower back. Just stand upright and bring your shoulders back a little.
- The return
We are taught to return the bar under control with the same strict technique used to lift it. I find that most people can’t do this. The return form is sloppy, their back rounds and they risk injury. Personally, I’d rather dump the weight and focus on the next address. To me it’s one of the few exercises where a great deal of the benefit is in the positive portion of the lift and it’s ok to skip the negative. Lifting the thing off the floor is the hard bit and a great indicator and developer of brute strength.
Unless there is a very good reason not to do it, all our clients deadlift. To me it’s the number one developer of strength and function with metabolic and hormonal benefits thrown in. And because of its development of the posterior chain, it’s also a great counter to the scourge of all day sitting.